Fat Winter Bees

We are getting on towards the end of August, and to our bees, it is almost fall. What makes the season “fall” to our honey bees? It is the slow-down of pollen coming into the hive. This change in pollen availability is what triggers our bees to raise the fat bees for winter. What makes them “fat bees” is the fact that they don’t feed royal jelly to any larvae after them. Feeding royal jelly is costly to a nurse bee, and if she doesn’t need to expend herself for her sisters, her physiology will be completely different from her summer sisters. Fat winter bees have more fat bodies; cells that function like a liver, in that they store fat, carbohydrates, and energy, and form a part of the bee’s immune system. Fat cells store cholesterols and nutrients that will be fed to the larval bees that are raised after the winter solstice. Without these stored nutrients, the larval bees will not be healthy, and may not be able to live and grow at all. Fat winter bees also have enlarged hypo-pharyngeal glands (where royal jelly comes from). The bee herself may not have enough energy to function well as a heater bee during prolonged cold spells without these fat bodies. And, her immune system will not be as able to cope with viruses, bacteria, and fungi if her fat bodies are damaged or missing.

So, what would harm the fat bodies of a honey bee? You guessed it, mites…Varroa destructor. When a foundress mite (the mother mite) is ready to start laying eggs in a cell with a larval bee, she bites a big hole in the baby bee, and feeds on the baby’s fat cells. After her baby mites hatch, they wiggle around the larval bee to the hole in it, and also feast on our baby bee’s fat cells. So, even before she emerges from her pupal cell, the bee has been damaged. Then, as an adult bee, she may have adult mites find the soft spot between her segments (under her arm on the left side) and dig another hole in her and feast on her fat cells some more. While they are thus feasting on our bees, mites are also injecting viruses and bacteria into the bee whose immune system they just damaged.

So, you can see why it is so important to get mite numbers low before the eggs that will become our fat winter bees are even laid. Don’t see mites on your bees? Don’t be complacent, they are there. It is pretty tough to see mites hiding in the armpits of honey bees. Monitor your hives for mites by doing a powdered sugar roll or alcohol wash. There are several organic mite treatments that are easy to use and some are compounds already found in honey and in hives. https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org is a great  place to find the details about how and when these organic compounds can be used. They have information about non-organic compounds as well, along with a great tool to help you figure out how many mites is too many at different times of the year.

Not taking care of this means that you will find an empty hive or a small dead cluster inches from honey, come spring. It also means that any beekeeper within 2 miles of you will find the same thing, no bees. If you are determined not to treat for mites, as in Darwinian Beekeeping, Tom Seeley says it is your responsibility to kill the hive before it spreads its mites are diseases to neighboring hives. You still need to know mite numbers, and act accordingly. Let’s bee happy beekeepers! Knock the mites off of your bees with an organic mite treatment, and get a more resistant queen… Darwinian Beekeeping at its best. T

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